Evaluation of interventions: Qualitative review of food safety regulatory decision-making

Last updated:
14 February 2012
This study aimed to explore Authorised Officers (AOs) regulatory decision-making and identify a number of factors which affect it. This included the ‘mindset’ of regulators, the response by food business operators (FBOs) and the influence of external factors.
Study duration: January 2011 to September 2011
Project code: FS245004
Contractor: IPSOS Mori

Background

There are 1.3 million cases of foodborne disease in the UK every year, resulting in around 500 deaths. The Agency works with Local Authorities (LAs) to enforce food laws through Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) and Trading Standards Officers (TSOs).

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) publishes a Code of Practice setting out instructions and criteria that LAs should comply with when enforcing food law. In June 2008, the Agency launched a revised Code of Practice to introduce additional flexibilities for types of interventions in lower risk category businesses. This provides authorised officers (AOs) with more types of interventions and enforcement actions to facilitate more flexible approaches to regulatory work.

Research Approach

The aim of the work was to inform policy and provide good practice guidance for food authorities. The results provide the FSA with insights into the decision making processes which are vital to food safety regulatory work. They also help the FSA deliver its strategic aim – that food produced or sold in the UK is safe to eat as a result of effective, risk-based, proportionate regulation.

Of the 77 qualitative interviews which were conducted, 65 were with LA staff, and 12 with food business operators (FBOs). Interviews were carried out over 12 LAs, chosen to ensure a representative sample. In each study area, researchers then accompanied AOs on visits to food establishments to observe interactions between AO and FBO during planned inspections.

Results

Regulatory decision making is not straight-forward. However, the report provides rich descriptions of the process. EOs spontaneously explained that three key factors pre-determined their decision making: planned program of controls, enforcement policy escalation (e.g. to formal enforcement action), and securing public health protection.

The report identified four roles adopted by AOs when regulating FBOs:

  • The educator mindset was part of what they saw as their ‘responsibility to the public’ and was considered key to securing sustained compliance within a food business.
  • The consultant mindset implied that their educational approach mixed with their detailed knowledge of legislation put them in a good position to provide pragmatic and well-informed practical guidance.
  • The regulator mindset involved taking a more formal approach to securing FBO compliance.
  • The enforcer mindset was for many AOs their last resort, when they believed they needed to send out a sterner message to a food business.

FBOs were characterised by approach and attitude to compliance. This included those who were disinterested, reactive right through to proactive. The approach adopted by the regulator was, in part, in response to where the FBO was on the spectrum.

External factors

A number of external factors also affected decision making. LA budgets were under increasing pressure and enforcement teams talked about downsizing, ‘de-layering’ and restructuring, indicating the major impact that this new reality had for food safety regulatory practice. Evidence shows that most LAs had introduced new ways of working that limit the impact of budget constraints on food business compliance levels.

The use of a risk category dedicated to confidence in management was praised by many AOs. It looked beyond the most evident displays of compliance towards something that was a better indication of a compliant mindset and an ability to sustain compliant behaviour.

AOs understood the idea of better regulation (risk-based and proportionate) but their practice relied on a single type of intervention of full inspection. Repeated ‘cycling’ of an inspection intervention, in response to repeated FBO non-compliance, was also observed in some cases.

Supporting AOs

AOs feared being blamed in ‘another Pennington”1 which discouraged them from using the current regulatory flexibilities provided in the FSA Food Law Code of Practice. More needs to be done to encourage AOs to introduce flexibilities into their regulatory practice, such as:

  • being reassured of the merit in adopting more targeted and flexible regulatory approaches
  • FSA making clear analysis of risk and expectation for approaches to regulation
  • FSA and LAs promoting the idea and giving clear examples of better regulation approaches.

1A reference to Professor Hugh Pennington’s report of public enquiry into the September 2005 outbreak of E. Coli O157 in South Wales, which criticised the inspection regime and failures in HACCP procedures